Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sacred and Stolen: An Interview with Gary Vikan

Gary Vikan was Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore from 1994 to 2013; from 1985 to 1994, he was the museum’s Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Medieval Art. Before coming to Baltimore, Vikan was Senior Associate at Harvard’s Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. A native of Minnesota, he received his BA from Carleton College and his Ph.D. from Princeton University; he is a graduate of the Harvard Program for Art Museum Directors and the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program.

Gary was kind enough to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks in conjunction with his recently published book, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director

What got you interested originally in museum work?  In the late ‘70s, I was a Byzantine scholar at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC; by day I studied some of the most arcane subjects in the Greek medieval world, but at night, I taught adults in the Smithsonian Residents’ Associate Program. I needed to connect with people, and to make my scholarship somehow meaningful to everyday people. (Thus, my interest in Elvis as a modern secular saint.) And I wanted to use the art of the distant past, and the aura I personally felt surrounding this art, to make that connection to the public. The art experience is, for me, a spiritual experience, and I see myself as its evangelist.

What is your favorite exhibition of the many you worked on? I have two, and they are very different. One, from 25 years ago, is Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece. I especially liked this show because it marked the first time I was able, in a gallery space, to unleash the spiritual power of the icon. I could tell I succeeded, because the Plexiglass bonnets protecting the icons were covered with kiss marks. With that exhibition, I had brought the holy - the numinous - into the art museum.

My other favorite, from just a few years back, is Beauty and the Brain. This was a tiny, inexpensive show that I did in collaboration with a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins. It was interactive, and invited visitors to choose their favorite among a multiplicity of subtly morphed shapes. Our aim was to discover if people are “hard wired” for certain shapes (think of Henry Moore); and the answer is yes. 

What prompted you to write a book delving into the shadier side of the museum world? As I walked the galleries in the Walters giving tours, I became increasingly inclined over the years to relate the story behind the work of art, as distinct from the art history of the work. I found them much more interesting, as did my audience. Maybe it’s just that I’m a storyteller by nature. Anyhow, in retirement, I decided to tell some of the stories that I could not tell while still director. And it is true, lots of odd things go on behind the scenes in art museums, and I think the public deserves to know about them. After all, our collections belong to the public, and we work for the public.

How have museums responded to your book? No question I’ve irritated some museum people, and made others uncomfortable. But at the same time, I’ve gotten invitations to speak before museum audiences, so that tells me that at least some museum directors have the courage to open that “staff only” door and let their members and donors into the back-of-house. 

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about repatriation or return of stolen objects? I love The Cultural Property Observer, online, because it gives a balanced view. This is especially important right now, as the message mostly encountered in the media is that ISIS is somehow making hundreds of millions of dollars in looted antiquities from Syria and Iraq. This simply is not true, and if the US makes policy decisions (as it now is) believing that it is true, we are at risk going too far in closing our borders, and in curtaining gifts of works to our museums from US collectors - and thus endangering the ecosystem of antiquities collecting and gifting that has made our great encyclopedic museums. 

What advice would you have for museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in making sure their exhibitions and programs manifest in ethical ways? Keep the public good and the public trust ALWAYS at the top of your thinking. And never forget that works of art are mute, and they, too, need advocacy.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums and museum oversight? Finding a way to reboot the antiquities trade in what I believe is our “post looting” world. My book is a window onto a very different time in American collecting of antiquities - 30 or so years ago. It was truly a “wild west,” of don’t ask and don’t tell. I’m glad those days have passed, but what we are left with right now is an impasse between established collectors and collections and museums, and thus, the public.

The rules for buying and gifting antiquities have simply become too rigid. And so vast numbers of great works of art cannot now be bought by or donated to museums. The key to the future, I think, is the Internet, and transparency. Put these hundreds of thousands of antiquities already within the borders of the US, but lacking full documentation back to the UNESCO Convention on cultural property of 1970, on the Internet. If legitimate claims of looting are brought forward by source countries, those claims should be entertained in good faith. But in the absence of such claims, over time, de facto title should be granted to the collectors or dealers possessing the works, which can then reenter the antiquities trade - and ultimately, end up in a public museum.

How can museum professionals promote ethical collecting and exhibiting of artifacts? The key, again, is transparency. The last work the Walters acquired when I was director, in 2012, was a medieval Armenian tombstone. A visually powerful and important work, and the only one of its kind now owned by an American museum. We could not fully document the history of the piece, so we went to the Armenian Embassy in DC, and asked them what they thought (after alerting the dealer of our intent). Fine, they said, we would be proud to see this work of Armenian culture in Baltimore. In the end, pretty simple.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?  I would love to partner with the neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins, and neuroscientists around the globe who are exploring innovation, creativity, the aesthetic experience et cetera, and do a major show exploring the present state of the intersection of art (very broadly defined) and brain science. It is a truly exciting frontier, and I think I am (almost) uniquely suited to brokering a multilateral exhibition collaboration among cultural historians, artists (musicians, architects, and writers), aestheticians, social anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists. And it would be highly interactive, and have virtual reality as a key experiential dimension. It would be a big and bold version of my 2010 Beauty and the Brain project. It is the emerging field of “neuroaesthetics.” It could be co-hosted by the Met and the American Museum of Natural History.

Thanks again to Gary for sharing his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!

And now, a CONTEST!
If you'd like the chance to win a FREE copy of Gary's book, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, just subscribe to the ExhibiTricks blog by clicking on the link at the top right of the main ExhibiTricks page before November 15, 2016. (Already a subscriber?  Just send me an email with the words "Sacred and Stolen Contest" in the Subject line before November 15, 2016 to enter.)

We'll choose one lucky winner at random from the combined entry pool of new subscribers and email submissions to receive a copy of Gary's book.

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